Since 1979, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (and its subsequent re-edits) has soaked up so much spotlight that its inspiration--Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness--isn’t as much revisited as it is referenced.
Peter Kuper’s meticulous comic book adaptation of Heart of Darkness ($21.95, W. W. Norton & Company) stands to correct that injustice. In this edition, Kuper strives not only to adapt, but to also recontextualize and reclaim Conrad on the page. He even retains the original framing device, in which an unnamed character listens to a restless mariner--Marlow--recount his ill-advised foray in the ivory trade. At the center of his tale: a deadly river journey to find his metaphorical double, the mad tyrant Willard Kurtz.
Kuper, best known for his Eisner Award-winning graphic novels Ruins and Kafkaesque (and for dearly-departed Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons), is part alchemist, part cultural translator of the work here. It’s territory he knows well, having previously adapted Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
In modern terms, this is a “woke” adaptation wherein Kuper acknowledges the book’s complicated history. In her foreword, Harvard University history professor Maya Jasanoff quotes both critics and apostles of the work, recounting Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s dismissal of Heart of Darkness as “an offensive and totally deplorable book” because it “incorrectly depicted Africa as the antithesis of Europe and civilization.” She also quotes Barack Obama, who defended the book to college friends who called it a “racist tract”:
“...the book’s really not about Africa. Or black people. It’s about...a particular way of looking at the world,” the future president wrote in his autobiography. “[I read it] because it teaches me things.”
Kuper reveals the work for what it is: a book of its time, that was progressive and critical of dehumanizing colonial policies--yet still carried Conrad’s complicated prejudices. Kuper acknowledges all of this upfront, and does not pretend to paint over Conrad’s colonial blindspots, or the century in which he was born. Kuper’s reclamation of Conrad attempts a deft balancing act between Heart of Darkness’ social relevance and social offenses.
Kuper chooses a style of softer tones, in contrast to the more stark, almost woodcut-like style he used in The Metamorphosis. He was careful to study photographs of the time, especially of the Congolese, lest he be accused of the racism of caricature. It’s a brave undertaking, for an artist to attempt such an endeavor, especially when a cartoonist’s job is to boil characters down to their essential visual elements.
As Jasanoff points out, Conrad never names the river, country or even continent where Heart of Darkness takes place. The novella has been so easily transferable and malleable to interpretation that it served as the perfect metaphor for Coppola to transplant into Vietnam for Apocalypse Now.
Conrad, at age 32, was a sailor who assumed command of a boat sailing up the Congo River, and he based Heart of Darkness on his diary of the experience. Therefore, Kuper logically places his adaptation squarely in Africa’s Congo Free State, in the throes of Belgian King Leopold II’s reign of terror.
“They were no colonists. They were conquerors and they grabbed what they could get,” Marlow says. “It was aggravated murder on a grand scale. The conquest of the earth...mostly means taking it away from those with a slightly different complexion or flatter noses than ourselves.”
In returning the context to colonialism rather than warfare, Kuper shifts the perspective to remind us that when we look within, we may find darkness--but when we look back, we may get lost in the pitch-black abyss of historical atrocity.